Naren, a cut above the rest

When it comes to the No.1 in Team MRF, it is V.R.Naren Kumar by a big distance.

STAN RAYAN

HE probably has a tough time motivating himself. Though he insists that there is a lot of competition within the team, the words don't appear to flow from his heart.

Team MRF's Naren Kumar and his co-driver Ramkumar triumphed without raising a sweat . — Pic. VIPIN CHANDRAN-

True, Team MRF is the strongest side in the MAI Indian National Rally Championship. The number two, if any, is miles behind. And when it comes to the No.1 in Team MRF, it is V.R.Naren Kumar by a big distance.

When Naren competes in the national rally circuit, the question is not whether he would win but how big the winning margin would be. Such is the Coimbatore lad's domination of the sport in the country that the others seem to be going farther and farther behind.

The Kerala Rally 2003, organised by the Kerala Auto Sports Club, was a classic case. When Naren (co-driver D.Ramkumar) won the two-day event which included nine special stages with a total distance of 117.5 kms, the Coimbatore star was more than two minutes ahead of second-placed Karandip Singh of Chandigarh and three minutes in front of the seasoned N.Leelakrishnan, a former multiple national champion.

"Normally, a lead of 15 seconds is impossible to catch these days,'' said Leelakrishnan, which spoke volumes of Naren's class and calibre. The Kerala event gave Naren his seventh consecutive title in the national circuit, a streak which stretches from last year.

Naren, a former Asia Zone champion, gained a 16-second edge over his nearest rival, team-mate Arjun Balu, in the very first stage and with each stage, the lead just got bigger.

By the end of the first day's five special stages, Naren had built up a lead of 33 seconds over Arjun. He stretched it by a further six seconds after the second day's first stage.

But Arjun, who finished runner-up to Naren in last year's national drivers championship, was forced to pull out in the next stage with gearbox problems. With Arjun gone, there was a bigger gap between Naren and the rest of the field.

Team MRF, as expected, bagged all the top three overall positions with all its drivers competing in 1600cc Honda Cities. After three rounds of the eight-event national circuit, Naren now leads the drivers championship with 46 points with Karandip Singh (26 points) pushing out Arjun Balu (19) from the second place.

MRF may be at the top of the pack in Indian rallying, but its team members aren't exactly grinning. The `Reds' domination of the sport is perhaps making the team management take things easy. "Since we don't have any competition now, we are all driving old cars. When the circuit was close and hot, we used to change cars frequently, after six or seven rallies. Now, this is the third year with these cars,'' said Leelakrishnan, who also tunes and prepares Naren's car.

Even Arjun Balu was complaining about his old machine after the gearbox pack-up. "Probably, the gearbox hasn't been changed at all in these cars,'' he said.

Without the lively Sagar Muthappa, who won the last edition of the Kerala Rally, the experienced Jagat Nanjappa and the young Vikram Mathias, the MRF team itself was much smaller in the Kerala Rally, the third round of the MAI National Championship.

The Indian Rally Circuit clearly longs for the good old days when MRF and JK Tyres set the roads afire with their fierce rivalry. Even the crowds in Kochi and at the special stage routes near Bhoothanthankettu were much thinner this year.

"The rallies are no fun these days. I would say fifty per cent of the crowds have vanished,'' said O.G.Sunil, the Chairman of the Kerala Rally and a daring driver in the national circuit in his heyday.

The Rally Star Cup for novices, which was introduced by the Motorsport Association of India to help out amateur rallyists, is now throwing up a lot of promising talent.

Mumbai's Jiby Maliakal, who lifted the first RSC Cup, won the 1400cc class last year. And at the Kochi event, the Rally Star Cup champions Arjun Rao Aroor and his experienced co-driver C.K.Chinnappa surprised everybody by finishing fifth overall, ahead of all the entire 1400cc vehicles and even a 1600cc car. With its two favourites, Team Movva's Rahul Kantharaj (suffering a crash) and Blue Lines' Lohit V. Urs (gearbox problems) making their exit early, R.Karthikeyan (co-driver G.Sathis) triumphed in the 1400cc class.

The Kerala Rally, popular as the Popular Rally earlier and which had a 19-year-long association with Popular Automobiles, was run without a sponsor this year. But with Popular Automobiles, a leading car dealer, promising to return next year, the KASC event which runs through the Ernakulam and Idukki districts promises to be a bigger and brighter affair next year.

Final placings:

Overall: 1.V.R.Naren Kumar/D.Ramkumar (Team MRF, 1 hr, 23 mins, 16 secs); 2. Karandip Singh/Jaidas Menon (Team MRF, 1:25.32); 3. N.Leelakrishnan/Farooq Ahmed (Team MRF, 1:26.54); 4. Jiby Maliakkal/Nikhil Pai (Gulf Chettinad, 1:30.52) — all in 1600 cc; 5. Arjun Rao Aroor/C.K.Chinappa, 1:33.59).

1400cc: 1. R.Karthikeyan/G.Satis (1:35.04 secs); 2. George Antony/Bijoy Paul (1:38.01).

Rally Star Cup: 1. Arjuna Rao Aroor/C.K.Chinappa (1:33.59 secs); 2. Thirtha Patil/Lohit Anand (1:36.56); 3. Ranjith Ballal/Shanmuga (1:38.33); 4. Prithveen Rajan/Sandeep Frank (1:39.06); 5. Ram Prasanth/Thiru Murthy (1:44.10).